- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

CLIFFSIDE PARK, N.J. (AP) — Yasmeen Elsamra had a simple request: While her classmates were eating lunch, she wanted to go off by herself for a few moments to pray.

The 14-year-old was told she couldn’t, and went home distraught that afternoon in October 2003. Praying five times a day is a cornerstone of her Muslim faith.

“If I wasn’t allowed to pray my second prayer at school, I couldn’t do it at home,” she said. “When school finishes, the third prayer begins.”

Her family contacted the District-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, which asked the school district to reconsider. Eventually, the school district acknowledged it had no policy preventing a student from praying during free time, and allowed Yasmeen to use an empty classroom to unfurl her prayer rug, face Mecca and touch her head to the floor in a few moments of worship.

Her case was part of a nationwide grass-roots effort by Muslim parents to make public schools more friendly and accommodating to Muslim students. The movement has gained strength since the September 11 terror attacks.

“The reality for many Muslim students in public schools is very difficult,” said Ingrid Mattson, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America. “It’s highly stressful.”

She said her children were sometimes taunted in their Connecticut school district.

“The kids will say ‘Hey Osama, do you have a bomb? Are you going to blow us up?’” she said.

Some school districts are starting to take notice. A zero-tolerance policy on harassment of Muslim students was adopted by Florida’s Broward County school board in March 2003.

Paterson, N.J., home of the state’s largest Arab-American community, lets some students out of class early Fridays to attend prayers with their parents’ permission, and is one of a handful of New Jersey districts that closes schools for Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim religious holiday.

“You’re seeing a lot of schools becoming more sensitive this way,” said Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

In spite of a large Muslim student population in Baltimore, the school board there voted 10-0 earlier this year against a proposal to add Eid to the school holiday calendar.

The decision in Baltimore prompted Samira Hussein, a parent of four and an educator to nudge the Montgomery County school district toward a more inclusive curriculum. She and others got the district to send teachers and administrators to annual Ramadan celebrations marking the holiest month of the Muslim calendar.

The teachers ate lunch at the celebrations and spoke to parents and students about Islam and how it intersects with the school day, particularly what it feels like to fast while other children eat. Now, her children and other fasting Muslim students may sit at a cafeteria table doing homework, playing games or just talking during lunch.

That’s the kind of simple accommodation that Aliya Rohani wishes every Muslim student could have.

“I don’t want to be hated by other people,” said Aliya, who attends the Al-Noor School in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I would go home to my mom and cry. I started saying, ‘No, I’m not Arabic.’ But I don’t want to deny who I am.”

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